Mortal Kombat (2021)
Get over here.
Although this new Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory, it certainly puts up a helluva good fight. Based on the long-running video game franchise of the same name created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, this new Mortal Kombat movie serves as a reboot of the film series that hit the silver screen back in the mid to late 1990s. The property was first adapted for the big screen in 1995’s Mortal Kombat, which kick-started the career of Paul W. S. Anderson. His film was a fun, generally faithful fantasy martial arts actioner, which gave us that kick-ass Mortal Kombat theme ‘Techno Syndrome’ by The Immortals. The follow-up, however, was the poorly-received cheap-looking Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), which, let’s face it, K.O.’d the entire series. We’ve also had a couple of small-screen iterations; television shows Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996) and Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998), which were passable if not wholly forgettable.
What’s changed this time around is that James Wan, The Conjuring 2 (2016), has jumped on board as producer, giving aficionados of the Midway/ Acclaim Entertainment fighting game series (launched in 1992) something to smile about. Wan’s fondness for the macabre and background in horror has allowed the creative team to fully embrace what makes the IP one of the greatest and highest-selling video games in the genre — its R rating. This latest Mortal Kombat goes for the jugular, showcasing the brute savagery of the characters and their skills and strength. Basically, we get a handful of gory and graphic live-action fatalities, which fans of the series have been clamoring to see for the past 24 years.
The film begins in 17th Century Japan, where we meet the ice-cold Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), whom fans of the game might know as Elder Sub-Zero. He does some evil shit and kills a bunch of innocent people, this 7-minute opener displaying the mystical assassin’s icy abilities and cold, calculated fighting style. This intro more or less validates the film’s adult rating. It’s also here where we’re introduced to thunder god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), an elder who appears out of an explosive bolt of lightning, and a man named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who, after an intense fight scene, gets murdered by Bi-Han but turns out to be pretty darn important to the overall narrative. While this prologue is undoubtedly cool to watch, anyone unfamiliar with the Mortal Kombat characters or lore will be left scratching their heads, confused about what they’ve just seen and how it fits into the bigger picture. We’re hit with multiple name drops and references to things like ninja clans and long-running feuds — lack of decent exposition turns out to be one of the film’s major flaws.
We then cut to the present day, where we quickly learn (and I do mean quickly) about a deathmatch contest known as Mortal Kombat, held between realms such as Earthrealm (our world) and the ominous Outworld, where the mightiest champions of each land are pit against one another to fight for the survival and future of their respective domains. With Outworld having won the past nine out of ten tournaments, coming out victorious in the tenth would allow them to invade, conquer and merge with the defeated Earthrealm. Thus, the soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) employs his warriors to hunt and eliminate all of Earthrealm’s champions, which can be identified by a distinctive dragon mark, before the next tournament commences.
Enter washed-up mixed martial arts fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a character created for the film that’s supposed to work as an audience stand-in, who’s attacked by Sub-Zero (one of Shang Tsung’s assassins) while having dinner one night with his family. Luckily, Cole is rescued by Special Forces Major Jackson ‘Jax’ Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), who informs our protagonist that they both share the same strange dragon mark — coincidence, probably not! With Jax taking on Sub-Zero and being badly wounded in the process, Cole sets out to locate Jax’s partner, a woman known as Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), to find out more about the marking and the icy assailant. Once Cole and Sonya’s paths intercept, she tells him that his destiny is linked with the Mortal Kombat tourney and the fate of the entire planet. After a fight sequence or two, our heroes find themselves at Raiden’s Temple, where they meet other champions, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), and begin to train for the upcoming event before it’s too late.
Written by newcomer Greg Russo and Oren Uziel, 22 Jump Street (2014) — with the screenplay credited to Russo and Dave Callaham, Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) — there’s not a lot of flesh on the narrative bones, the film basically skimming past important bits of information and background to make way for the kinetic, blood-soaked action. Directed by Perth boy Simon McQuoid, who’s known for his award-winning commercials, Mortal Kombat works best when we’re watching the bloody, bone-crunching fight scenes which are well shot and choreographed — the climactic clash between the iconic duo Scorpion and Sub-Zero, for instance, is very much worth the price of admission. With that said, however, we sadly never get to see the legendary tournament that’s mentioned throughout, filmmakers most likely holding it off for future installments.
Furthermore, McQuoid and his team do a great job incorporating the game’s lingo and famous fatalities into the proceedings — the highlight involving Kung Lao’s razor-rimmed metal hat. So, if you’re at all squeamish, maybe this isn’t the film for you. There are also a heap of game references and Easter eggs peppered throughout, including an enormous Shao Kahn statue and an appearance from the vampiric Nitara (Mel Jarnson); and, of course, there are exciting teases for what’s to come (if a follow-up is ever to eventuate).
Predominantly shot in Adelaide and parts of South Australia, the film looks nice and polished, the cinematography by Germain McMicking, Berlin Syndrome (2017), elevating every frame. The film’s VFX are effective and generally well done, particularly the fighters’ ‘arcana’ or special hidden abilities, think Sub-Zero’s icy freeze powers and Jax’s metallic arms. Additionally, the fully CGI characters, i.e., the hulking four-armed Shokan, Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson), and Reptile, who’s less humanoid and more of a giant lizard this time, blend seamlessly into their surroundings and combat sequences. And while I was a bit disappointed by the somewhat empty-looking Outworld, which is much more detailed in the video games, this is perhaps due to the film’s meek 95 million US dollar budget rather than being a creative choice.
Besides looking the part, most of the ‘kast,’ made up of relative unknowns, do a great job in breathing life into their characters, who feel like they’ve leaped right out of a gaming console. Lewis Tan, Deadpool 2 (2018), is a bit bland as our protagonist Cole but nails all his fight scenes. Jessica McNamee, The Meg (2018), stands out as one of my favorite game characters, American stunner Sonya Blade, and adds feisty energy to the action. She also plays off well against Aussie Josh Lawson, The Little Death (2014), who portrays the over-the-top ocker Kano and literally steals every scene he’s in; Lawson is, hands down, the movie’s MVP, his hilarious, foul-mouthed quips (which I’m sure were all improvised) bringing about bursts of laughter at the screening I attended.
Joe Taslim, The Raid (2011), is menacing AF as the frosty killer Bi-Han/ Sub-Zero, whilst Sisi Stringer leaves her mark as the toothy Outworld viper Mileena, despite her underdeveloped character and limited dialogue. Chin Han, Contagion (2011), isn’t bad as the antagonistic Warlock Shang Tsung; however, given his standing in the series, I was hoping he’d be portrayed as being much more sinister. Stuntman Daniel Nelson is also quite good as the masked warrior Kabal, known for his super-speed and hook swords; I just wish he had more screen time. Lastly, Nathan Jones, Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), has a small but amusing part as the burly baddie Reiko.
As a no-holds-barred adaptation that gives its characters the A-grade treatment they deserve, Mortal Kombat is a triumph. Sure, the narrative is sketchy, silly, and a little muddled in parts, but the film accomplishes what it sets out to do — get the players to FIGHT! In the long line of sub-par video game movies, this one ranks as a winner. Maybe next time, we’ll get to see some Babalities, Brutalities, or even Friendships! Or perhaps a ‘Toasty’ cameo from the game’s sound designer Dan Forden — now, that I’d pay to see!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)